The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson
First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
Was it what I expected?
I chose to read Hill House this month for some atmospheric classic horror in the spirit of Halloween. That’s the type of horror I most enjoy, and I’ve been meaning to read this one for years. Insofar as that, it was exactly what I expected in the best way. However, I am also the one weirdo who really liked the 1999 film version The Haunting, or at least it stuck with me very strongly, so it took a while for me to divorce my memories of that movie from the book I was in fact reading. It was worth the effort though, because they’re very different and I wouldn’t have appreciated the characterization as much if I’d kept on imagining the movie’s cast.
Did I like it?
Yes! Jackson’s narration captures Eleanor perfectly, and mingles inherently spooky “things going bump in the house” scares with an unreliable narrator whose mind is slowly becoming incoherent. The structure of the story — no pun intended — engages you on all levels, not only making you think hard to try and grasp what’s going on inside the house and inside the characters, but also making you feel like you’re actually there, feeling your senses confounded by the crooked house. You feel when it’s dim and when it’s light. And it plays with your sense of time, just as it seems to do with Eleanor’s. Excellent and subtle writing with that old-fashioned style that’s very easy to read, lulling you into its rhythm.
Is it worth reading?
Very much so. I enjoyed tracking the by-now well-documented queer subtext, but the theme of self-fear, fear of one’s own possibilities, is surely universal and worth exploring. Such a well-written book is welcome at any time, but especially during this season when a spooky book, perhaps along with a blanket and a warm drink, are most welcome.